My heart exults in Yahweh;
I rejoice in the power of his salvation.
He has satisfied the hunger of the poor.
The famished cease from their labour.
He raises the poor from the dust.
He gives the needy a place among the princes.
He assigns them a seat of honour.
These verses from the first book of Samuel are extracts from the proclamation of Hannah, the mother of Samuel, after she received the news that she was to bear a son. And these are from the canticle which we call the Magnificat, delivered by Mary the mother of Jesus in an identical situation:
My soul tells of the greatness of the lord.
My spirit rejoices in the salvation of my God.
The Almighty has done great things for me.
He has pulled down the princes from their throne and exalted the poor and needy.
He has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty.
I have selected some of the verses that have the clearest verbal echo. Hannah’s emphasis is more on the military power of Yahweh. Mary’s on God’s thirst for justice. But what these two women have in common is their recognition that the births of their two babies were so important that they must be seen in a cosmic, a religious and a political setting. It was the political aspect of Mary’s role that Anne emphasised in her sermon in Advent.
I want to concentrate on Mary’s pivotal role as organiser, interpreter, manager of her son.
Samuel’s conception was a mystery – Hannah was long past the age of childbearing. Mary’s conception also defied the normal process. - This was the first indication that the destinies of both men were part of a divine plan and their mothers had a duty to announce this to the world. Hannah gave Samuel over to Eli, to be an acolyte of the priest in the temple, set apart physically in preparation for his training; he was the last Judge of Israel and in this capacity he anointed the first Israelite king. Mary chose to bring up her son himself. His was a Messianic role and like Hannah, Mary was well aware of the part she had to play in the sacred story of the people of Israel. She formed her son, shaped his thinking, gave him his early insights into his mission to the poor, the dispossessed, people on the margins.
When the angels sang at the nativity and the shepherds left the stable to tell everyone what they had seen and heard, Mary, we’re told, treasured all these things and pondered them in her heart.
When Jesus was presented in the temple as a young baby, Simeon and then Anna uttered prophecies, some might say omens: Simeon’s words have now become another liturgical hymn: My eyes have seen the salvation which you have prepared for all people; a light to lighten the gentiles, and the glory of your people Israel. And then Simeon turned to Mary and declared: this child is destined for the fall and the rising of many in Israel… and a sword will pierce your own heart too. Anna was more positive: she praised God and spoke of the child to all who looked forward to the deliverance of Jerusalem. Simeon and Anna reinforced the message that the gospel writer is keen to convey – that this baby is the central figure in God’s purpose for his people, and for the world, Jew and Gentile.
When Mary and Joseph found the twelve-year-old Jesus in the temple in Jerusalem at the feast of the Passover, Mary is said to have been overcome. It may have been with relief or with fury. But when she reprimanded her son: My child, why have you done this to us? See how worried your father and I have been, looking for you, Jesus’s reply was: Why were you looking for me? Did you not know that I must be busy with my father’s affairs? The gospel writer says: they did not understand what he meant. I suggest that Jesus was disappointed at his mother’s apparent failure to recognise that even as a very young child, he was set apart. But I think that Mary did recognise this clearly. The passage continues: he went back with [his parents] to Nazareth and lived under their authority
In the story we’ve just heard, Mary is in command of the situation. The writer gives her precedence in the narrative, over Jesus himself and his disciples. She reports to her son the bad news about the wine supply. His reply is brusque to the point of rudeness but she understands the meaning of his reference to ‘his hour’. This was a phrase Jesus used several times to indicate that he knew that there would be a moment of crisis for him, but until that moment he wanted his disciples to exercise discretion, even secrecy, about what he was doing. (The hour comes in John’s gospel: Jesus knew that his hour had come and that he must leave this world and go to the father. He looked up to heaven and said ‘Father, the hour has come. Glorify your son that your son may glorify you’)
His hour had not come at the wedding feast at Cana in Galilee, but he performed the first of what John called ‘the signs’, episodes, miracles, that were a mark of his divine authority. And this sign was brought about at his mother’s instigation. His mother was not rebuffed by her son. She was undaunted by him. She ignored him and said to the servants: whatever he tells you to do, do it.
Jesus left home to begin his ministry and other members of his family appear to have disapproved. According to Mark 3:21, they were afraid for his safety and said that he was "out of his mind"; and some of them attempted to take charge of him and bring him home. Matthew 12:46-50 indicates that he refused to talk to his mother and brothers when they tracked him down and tried to see him. And John 7:5 says "even his own brothers did not believe in him." Jesus’s response to this was to remark that a prophet is not without honour, save in his own country.
But Mary stayed by her son’s side until the very end, until his hour had come. One of Jesus’s last words was to commend her care to John, the beloved disciple, and to tell John to look on her as his mother. In the beginning of the Acts of the Apostles we read that after the Ascension, a group of the most intimate of the men and women disciples together with Jesus’s brothers and his mother were based in Jerusalem, meeting in the upper room where he had eaten the Passover. They were in one accord, constantly at prayer. This group formed the basis of the new Israel, the Jesus movement, the Way. And Mary was at the centre.
We are conditioned, partly by Renaissance painting and Baroque sculpture, to think of Mary as an eternally slim adolescent, dressed in heavenly blue, doting, tender, demure, meek. Or we see her sitting passively on a cloud, surrounded by angels, being crowned as the queen of heaven. But she was not a limp, self-deprecating woman, proclaiming her unworthiness or wretchedness. She was strong, resolute, aware of her crucial destiny in the story of her son. She was a woman of vision and passionate intensity, devoted to his mission.
Whatever he tells you to do, do it. That’s very good advice.
Margaret is a retired school teacher and serves as a Reader (lay minister) at the Church of the Ascension Blackheath.
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